Ritson on the 10 traits of a successful marketer

Marketers at the top of their game possess 10 key traits, according Mark Ritson, from the willingness to trangress, an affinity with simplicity and an understanding that strategy means sacrifice.

BrainThere are ten character traits that combine to make better marketers, according to Marketing Week Mini MBA founder and columnist Mark Ritson. Speaking today (10 June) at the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward, he explained why a rule breaking mentality, curiosity and the willingness to choose are signs of marketing success.

1. Empathy

“The central concept of marketing is the concept of market orientation, of being able to understand the customer,” Ritson told the Festival audience.

“Our prime directive is not to do digital media or AI. Our prime directive is to bring the voice of the customer into the organisation. No one else does that except marketers.”

Ritson recommends a ‘180 swivel’, whereby companies turn to look at themselves from the point of view of their customers.

“It sounds so basic, but most companies never do that,” he said. The process can show the market and perceived competitors in an entirely different context. It can also highlight a profound lack of understanding of what people outside the marketing industry bubble need or want.

2. Curiosity

A sense of curiosity is immensely important to marketers, argued Ritson. He related how Philippe Pascal, former head of watches and jewellery at LVMH, demanded that his marketers be ‘street smart’, a trait nurtured by being curious enough to constantly ask customers and retailers what was happening and why.

They had an insatiable urge to “stick their nose in things”, to learn about the business and its customers, and a natural tendency to want to understand things, said Ritson.

“We are obsessed with communications and we are obsessed with tactics. These are only a third of what we do,” he added.

Before tactics comes strategy, and before strategy comes diagnosis. That is where curiosity comes in.

3. Comfort with imprecision

Mention of this trait can cause consternation. When Ritson sets the final exam for the Mini MBA he uses an example where the numbers deliberately don’t add up. This test is designed to reflect the real world struggle to balance the books – and marketing budgets – at a company.

“About 15% of the class don’t get this. They never get past this point. They go round and round trying to work it out, and never get beyond it to the next stage of the exam,” Ritson explained.

“The point about marketing, trust me, is it ain’t fucking science. It’s a rounded business,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with that.”

While senior marketers have the confidence to accept figures as good enough and move on, those who obsess about the detail will not make it past mid-level, Ritson believes. Instead they will be stuck on a ‘hamster wheel’ of prevarication.

4. Making Time

“The biggest barrier to marketers getting strategy done and getting on top of their jobs is that they get sucked into tactics,” said Ritson.

Bad marketers, he argued, never get away from tactics long enough to do forward planning for the next year.

Being able to make time to address planning is a key trait of good marketers. “Good marketers almost seem to have more minutes in their day and shit ones are always saying ‘I don’t have time to do this planning’,” Ritson added.

5. Long-term vision

The classic marketing balance between long-term growth, driven by brand marketing, and short-term sales uplift, from performance marketing, exercises many marketers. Together, the long and short-term activities produce optimum results.

“So many marketers are still unable to do a good job of long-term brand building and why are they spending way too much money on short-term activation?” asked Ritson “The simple answer is because most companies plan on a 12-month cycle. The red line of sales activation is so much more attractive in terms of ROI than the blue line of brand building, that we neglect it.”

Marketers who lean too heavily on short-term ROI do well in year one, but lose out in years two, three and four.

6. Short-term doing

Ritson cited PepsiCo vice chair and CFO Hugh Johnston, who said: “Any idiot can do short term and any idiot can do long term. The trick is to do both.”

Ritson believes that most people can’t do both long and short-term marketing, and suggested most people should recruit a complementary character accordingly.

“Most marketers may have a long-term vision, but they are fucking useless at delivering the numbers,” he added. “They don’t understand that if you don’t deliver the number you are of no use to the organisation.”

7. Choicefulness

To Ritson, choicefulness is a terrible word but an important concept. Illustrating his point with Apple designer Jony Ive’s explanation of how Steve Jobs demanded focus, Ritson explained how strategy is really about sacrifice.

Many choices at a senior level are about what not to do, rather than about what to do. Too many brand codes and too many objectives means drift, he argued.

“The research is clear: you need four or five objectives. It’s the magical number. More and they become dreams that never happen,” said Ritson.

8. Make things look simple

“When you come up with a strategy the thinking and the work is complicated, but what you produce at the end, the plan, the strategy itself, should be so simple anyone can follow it,” Ritson explained.

Showing images of General Eisenhower explaining invasion strategy to a group of marines on D-Day, Ritson pointed out that while planning the detail of the attack took three years, the concept was simple enough to explain in moments.

“The highest praise you can get from your team is ‘This strategy is kind of straighforward’,” said Ritson.

9. Rule breaking

“We can get carried away with this trying to be brave,” warned Ritson. “We’re not really that brave.”

However, at the heart of good marketing is an ability to transgress and break the rules, he added. If brands are all aiming to be different they should be able to disregard category norms and break the rules.

10. Learning and adapting

The first slide in a marketing plan when it comes to your second year at a brand should be a review of what happened last year, insists Ritson.

“A review to see what you did well, what you did badly, whether you hit your goals, whether you didn’t. And crucially, what you have learned in your first 12 months in the market,” he advised.

Learning and adapting has to be the final trait of a good marketer because it makes you smarter, Ritson added: “Teach yourself in the market by learning and adapting as you go through. If you do that over a career of 20 or 30 years you become a bloody good marketer.”

Marketing professor and columnist Mark Ritson is the founder of the Marketing Week Mini MBAs in Marketing and Brand Management